Differentiation of instructional methodologies in social studies at the secondary level

Differentiation of instructional methodologies in social studies at the secondary level

Hootstein, Edward W

Efforts to derail secondary schools have called attention to the need for instructional practices to address the increased academic diversity within many classrooms. Fifty-eight social studies teachers completed a survey that explored their practices and beliefs about addressing academic differences in their secondary classrooms. The focus of the survey was teachers’ frequency of use and effectiveness of numerous instructional methods. This study was part of a larger research effort including teachers from the primary content areas. Most social studies teachers reported methods focusing on traditional, teacher-directed strategies, and some emphasized group techniques and peer interaction. Examination of the most frequently cited reasons for the effectiveness of methods suggests major emphases on teachers providing reinforcement for strong foundations of learning and learners helping each other. Teachers want and value support from administrators, parents, and colleagues to make changes, and they recognize their need for more training.

Educators have recently proposed the use of differentiated instruction to meet a wide range of student achievement levels as part of a major effort to derail secondary schools. Research demonstrates that schools have employed a variety of organizational policies in their derailing efforts, however policies have not guaranteed high quality instruction (Gamoran & Weinstein, 1995; Oakes, Gamoran, & Page, 1992). The goal of quality instruction for all students is more often idealized than realized as teachers struggle to provide multiple layers of instruction.

The emerging definition of differentiated instruction focuses on using proactive planning to provide a variety of instructional methods to respond to student differences, including: interests, abilities, readiness to learn, and levels of motivation found in inclusive, mixed-ability classrooms (Tomlinson, 1995a). Methods that focus on differentiating instruction move away from a single prescribed lesson and provide teachers with the flexibility to adjust factors such as learning objectives and pace of instruction to meet students’ varied learning needs. Multiple types of learning activities may occur simultaneously within the differentiated classroom as teachers make instructional decisions based on assessments of student readiness and progress (Tomlinson, 1995a). Empirical studies offer little understanding about how secondary school social studies teachers use differentiated instruction to address students’ academic differences. Researchers’ (e.g., Grossman & Stodolsky, 1994; Lou et al., 1996) descriptions of the relationships between secondary teachers’ practices and the particular subjects they teach can shed light on how secondary instruction is typically delivered. Evidence suggests that subject-specific differences are important in understanding how teachers address academic differences in their classrooms. Characteristics of subject areas, such as the notion that social studies is synthetic, or arranged in different ways, whereas mathematics is hierarchical, influence teachers’ instructional practices (Welton & Mallan, 1996). In this study, data was collected from a sample of teachers in four content areas: social studies, math, science, and English.

The purpose of this study was to examine how social studies teachers use instructional methods to meet students’ diverse academic needs. The study was brought into focus by posing the following research questions: (a) which instructional methods do these teachers use to address students’ academic differences? (b) Which instructional methods do secondary school social studies teachers think are effective in addressing students’ academic differences, and why do they think these methods are effective? (c) Which factors facilitate and which factors inhibit these teachers’ abilities to differentiate instruction? (d) How do the beliefs and practices of these social studies teachers compare to the primary content area teachers in terms of addressing academic differences?



A stratified sample of 386 secondary school teachers was taken from high schools in seven school divisions of a southeastern metropolitan area. The schools represented urban, suburban, and rural populations. A total of 58 social studies teachers returned completed surveys (response rate = 70%). The sample of respondents had an average of approximately 17 years of teaching experience with an average of 15 years of experience teaching social studies; forty-five percent of the teachers held a master’s degree or above. In addition, teachers had varying levels of preparation to address academic differences in terms of inservice sessions, university courses, and workshops or conferences.


The Differentiated Practices Survey (Appendix) was designed to elicit teachers’ beliefs about effective practices for addressing academic differences, the frequency with which they are used, and factors that influence their use. Academic differences were defined as those based on interests, abilities, readiness to learn, and levels of motivation. Teachers were asked to identify their class with the greatest range of academic differences and to reflect on that class as they responded to questions that followed. Teachers were also asked to indicate the extent to which factors made it difficult and which factors made it possible to address academic differences in their classrooms. A final section of the survey asked respondents how best to help teachers meet the diverse academic needs of students.

Teachers rated the usage frequency of 15 instructional methods ranging from 1 -never to S-almost daily. Teachers also rated the effectiveness of those 15 methods using a Likertscale ranging from 1-not effective at all to 4-very effective. An open-ended question was asked of teachers to describe their three most effective methods for addressing academic differences, then explain why they believed those methods were effective.

Data Analysis

Qualitative and quantitative methods were used to analyze the survey data. Descriptive statistics and multiple comparisons were calculated using SPSS. Two experienced qualitative researchers coded qualitative data. This inductively produced derived categories used to subsume all teachers’ responses. Disagreements about deriving categories and coding responses were discussed until agreement was reached, so that all final coding was done by consensus.


Eighty-three percent of social studies teachers indicated that addressing academic differences was important or very important. They indicated that students in their classes exhibited a moderate to high degree of academic diversity. Teachers also provided certain characteristics of their most academically diverse class. This information provides a context for understanding teachers’ responses to the remaining survey items. In short, teachers referred to standard level courses (93%) with students from more than one grade level most frequently.

Instructional Methods for Addressing Academic Differences: Frequency of Use

Teachers were asked to indicate how often they used each of the 15 listed methods to address the different academic needs of students in the class they teach with the greatest range of academic diversity. Table 1 includes a list of all methods ranked from most frequently used to least frequently used. As Table 1 shows, social studies teachers reported using the following methods occasionally to frequently (once a week or more): lecture with question and answer, variety of materials, teacher-led discussion, lecture, adjusting questions, and modeling. These methods represent a teacher-centered approach to social studies instruction. As a group, teachers also reported they rarely (once a month or less) used peer tutoring, tiered assignments, or learning contracts.

Due to the nature of various content areas, further analyses were conducted to determine whether teachers of social studies, English, math, or science used instructional methods with varying frequency. Social studies teachers reported using lecture with question and answer more frequently than English teachers did. Social studies teachers also reported using independent projects and student-led discussions less often than English teachers did. Social studies teachers reported using modeling and peer tutoring less frequently than teachers did from the other content areas.

Effectiveness of Instructional Methods

Two types of survey items elicited information about which methods teachers thought were effective for addressing academic differences and why. The first item was an open-ended question that asked teachers to list the three methods they believed most effective in addressing students’ academic differences in their classes. Social studies teachers named a wide variety of methods. The most frequently named methods are grouped into 13 categories summarized in Table 2.

Examination of the most frequently cited reasons for the effectiveness of these methods suggested two major emphases: reinforcing content and providing opportunities for learners to help each other. These reasons give insight into the general goals of teachers to address academic differences.

The second way teachers indicated which methods they thought were effective was by response to a closed-choice survey item. This provided a systematic means for social studies teachers to evaluate a set of specific methods and thus the relative effectiveness of each could be analyzed.

Table 3 shows that the most frequently cited methods rating between very effective and moderately effective were lecture with question and answer, modeling, variety of materials, and adjusting questions. The rankings of effectiveness shown in Table 3 are similar to the rankings for frequency of use in Table 1 with the exception of projects. Projects ranked sixth in effectiveness but eleventh in frequency of use. In open-ended format, social studies teachers indicated that group methods were most effective. When given the closed-ended choices, several methods have or may have group characteristics, such as small group with common goals, small group with multiple goals, or peer tutoring.

Statistical tests were performed to determine whether social studies teachers rated the effectiveness of methods differently than teachers from the four content areas. Although most teachers rated modeling as an effective strategy, social studies teachers gave this method lower ratings than did teachers of English or math.

Factors That Facilitate and Inhibit Ability to Address Academic Differences

Social studies teachers indicated that their efforts to differentiate instruction are facilitated to the greatest extent by technology, structuring small group work, making time to tutor students, and using peer tutoring, respectively. Conversely, the factors that make it most difficult to address academic differences in their classrooms are large class size and students’ behavioral problems. In addition, they noted the importance of administrative and parental support for their efforts. They indicated that administrative ineffectiveness of inconsistent policies hampered efforts. They also want more administrative support in dealing with disruptive students.

Suggestions for Helping Teachers Meet Differing Academic Needs

Teachers were asked to indicate what would help them better meet the needs of academically diverse students. Almost fifty percent of the respondents indicated that staff development would be useful. Twenty-four percent of the teachers indicated that schoolwide discussion of policies would be helpful. Approximately twenty percent indicated that dissemination of research findings would improve their abilities to meet student needs. Almost fifty percent of the teachers offered responses in the space provided for “other” recommendations. The most common suggestions were for smaller classes, more planning time, additional resources, and removing students with behavioral problems from the classroom.

Discussion and Implications Methods to Address Academic Differences

Social studies teachers understand that different learners need a variety of instructional methods to help them understand content. They reported using various methods; however, those methods such as tiered assignments, independent projects, or curriculum compacting that requires proactive, planned efforts were among the methods least often cited. Some of the methods used most frequently, including discussion, adjusting questions, and lecture with question and answer suggest what Tomlinson (1995b) calls micro-differentiation, in which teachers make minor adjustments to a single lesson rather than plan different lessons for students who may vary in ability or interest. Most efforts were used with methods to remedy or ensure that students acquired the basic knowledge or met the required instructional goals.

Differences in use and effectiveness ratings of methods by content area provide an understanding of how subjects are taught In general, social studies teachers relied on lecture more often than teachers of other content areas. The limited use of small group methods by social studies teachers was surprising. The nature of the social studies curriculum, emphasizing a vast body of factual knowledge may provide clues into the reliance on traditional methods. These findings suggest the importance of considering teachers’ beliefs about how the curriculum should be taught when staff development training is designed.

Reasons for Effectiveness

Specifically, social studies teachers most often indicated a particular method was effective because it allowed them to reinforce ideas and keep students on task through structure and organization. Their concern with establishing a strong foundation for learning suggests a focus on ensuring that all students meet the mandated requirements. In addition to teachers’ beliefs about large classes and disruptive students, these findings may suggest the need for teachers to establish control in the classroom. Reasons for effectiveness also emphasized providing opportunities for students to support and learn from each other. This reason was given for methods involving group discussion, small group work, projects, or peer tutoring. Teachers noted the value of students hearing their peers’ explanations and collaborating to solve problems.

Studies focusing on heterogeneous grouping suggest that effective instruction in mixed-ability classes can be achieved through the use of small classes, additional resources to support individualized instruction, strong intellectual leadership, and careful selection of teachers and students (Gamoran & Weinstein, 1995). However, the findings in this study suggest that small classes, selection of students, and additional resources are not realities of today’s classrooms.

Training Needs

The findings of this study provide an important starting point for future training efforts. Social studies teachers provided insight into how they can better meet students’ needs in heterogeneous secondary classrooms. They want and value support from administrators, parents, and colleagues to make changes. Teachers recognize their need for more training, however, the “one size fits all” workshops are no more effective for teachers of different disciplines than “one size fits all” instruction is for all students. They want to collaborate to discuss specific aspects of the subjects they teach and have time to plan together as well as to share ideas with those from other disciplines. However, often workshops consist of introductory comments and exercises designed to provide an understanding of diverse academic needs that is typically intended as the foundation for further work. Teachers give low ratings to such workshops, stating that too little time and guidance are given for them to work together with their peers to synthesize the sometimes conflicting needs of students, state mandates, and discover the best effective practices. Past research has suggested that teachers need training to direct and coordinate multiple activities and levels of instruction within their classrooms and help students develop independent, self-management skills. Information combined with coaching of recommended instructional methods are recommended (Tomlinson, 1995b).

Future Directions

Secondary social studies teachers believe that instructional methods can improve academic achievement. Their beliefs about how to best meet the diverse academic needs of their students warrants more attention. Realities of schools, such as large classes, disruptive students, state mandates and high stakes testing raise questions about how to plan and implement differentiated methods. The findings presented in this study reveal that teachers have differing views of what instruction is or how it can be designed to address academic differences.

Research examining the relationships between instruction and student outcomes for secondary students is needed. Research methods involving classroom observation and multiple assessments of student achievement in conjunction with interview and survey methods can inform practice when we focus on those teachers who employ differentiated practices effectively and increase student achievement. We need to learn how effective teachers plan and implement differentiated methods, and how they overcome obstacles that interfere with the use of those methods.


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Edward W. Hootstein Virginia Commonwealth University

Copyright Kansas State University, College of Education Spring 1999

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